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On Tuesday, December 11, just before 8 PM, a lone attacker, Cherif Chekatt, armed with a handgun and a knife, killed five people and injured a dozen others who were visiting the famous Christmas market in front of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Chekatt was wounded in an exchange of fire with counterterrorism forces but initially escaped. Two days later, a patrol spotted him on a street close to where he grew up, a few miles away from the Cathedral, and shot him dead. The Islamic State (ISIS) quickly issued a press release praising Chekatt as a “soldier,” but what role, if any, ISIS had in the attack is uncertain.
Chekatt was a drug dealer and a petty criminal, and had been on France’s extremist watch list since 2008, when he had put up a poster of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his prison cell. French authorities will likely be criticized for having failed to prevent the attack. Yet the truth is that in 2018, such attacks have become relatively rare.
Europe is now at the end of a wave of jihadist violence that began on November 13, 2015, with a series of ISIS attacks in Paris. In 2015, 150 people were killed in jihadist terrorist attacks, followed by 135 in 2016 and 62 in 2017. Unless something unexpected happens in the next few weeks, however, 2018 will end with only around 20 fatalities from terrorist attacks in Europe—a major decline from the previous three years.
What explains this sudden downturn? The decline of ISIS has certainly helped. But mostly, the answer is that European authorities have stepped up their fight against terrorism, passing aggressive new laws and thwarting plots that a few years ago might have been carried through to completion. This is a welcome development. But the risk of terrorism remains high: groups such as al Qaeda are still active in Syria and elsewhere, and the population of potential jihadist recruits in Europe has greatly expanded in recent years. European governments should celebrate the recent decline in violence, but they should not make it an excuse for complacency.
After years of high-profile, ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in Europe, 2018 was relatively tame. About a dozen jihadist attacks took place this year, most of them in the United Kingdom and France. Many of these incidents were amateurish, with perpetrators who professed their allegiance to ISIS but seemed to be merely inspired by the group rather than having any real connection with it. The exception to this rule was a plot, foiled by Dutch authorities in September, in which seven ISIS supporters were to carry out a series of coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in the Netherlands. The group’s ringleader, a man of Iraqi origin, had previously been convicted of attempting to join ISIS, and three of his co-conspirators were returnees from Syria. Other than this, however, there is little evidence that ISIS controls sleeper cells in Europe.
The decline in violence is partly the result of ISIS’ collapse in the Middle East, which has made it more difficult for the group to recruit terrorists and organize attacks in Europe. But it is also a product of improvements in European counterterrorism. According to Europol, in 2016, only three attacks were foiled while 13 were carried out to completion; in 2017, 11 were foiled while only ten were completed. (Since reporting is not standardized across the continent, these numbers are provisional—France claims that it foiled 20 plots in 2017 alone.) No official figures have been released for 2018, but it is almost certain that more attacks were prevented than completed. In September, British authorities revealed that they had stopped, on average, a plot every month over the past 12 months.
At the European level, the EU has put pressure on member states to better coordinate and share information, while Europol has stepped up operational support to national police forces. A 2016 EU directive required member states to participate in a data bank, the Passenger Name Record (PNR) system, listing information on travelers. Previously, member states had refused to share a passenger’s name, address, banking data, itinerary, and emergency contact details, citing privacy and fears of abuse. France, historically a holdout when it comes to data sharing, signed on in 2017, and although the PNR is yet to be fully implemented, it has greatly improved data sharing across the continent.
New national legislation has also strengthened Europe’s counterterrorism capabilities. In 2015, Spain criminalized proselytizing for extremism on the Internet, and the United Kingdom adopted the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which expanded authorities’ access to the online data of terrorism suspects, whose movements police could now better monitor and restrict. France, meanwhile, passed legislation in October 2017 that replaced and codified aspects of the emergency powers that had gone into effect after the November 2015 attacks. The new law expanded the French police’s powers to conduct searches, made it easier for the state to close down extremist mosques, and expanded the use of identity checks at and near the borders.
The pool of experienced jihadist operatives in Europe has grown exponentially.
The wave of attacks in 2015 and 2016 exposed failures in coordination between local and national security agencies. Some of these have now been rectified. In 2016, Germany passed a new law that, in addition to making it easier to deport “dangerous” foreigners and strip German citizenship from dual citizens suspected of terrorism, gave federal police more surveillance power. For a country long suspicious of concentrated federal authority, these were major reforms. Similarly, in June 2018, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, would more readily declassify information about citizens suspected of having terrorist sympathies and share it with local authorities and NGOs.
France and the United Kingdom have also improved the ability of their armed police to rapidly respond to attacks. Thanks to increased manpower and new training practices, for instance, it took the London police only eight minutes to respond to the London Bridge attack in June 2017. And in January 2015, France launched Opération Sentinelle, deploying a new national security force of 10,000 soldiers to guard potential targets across France. Soldiers from this force, stationed at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, were the ones who found and shot Chekatt, undoubtedly saving lives.
Over the last year, there have been fewer terrorist attacks in Europe, and those that have been successful have been less lethal than their counterparts from a few years ago. Dig behind these numbers, however, and there are some less reassuring indicators.
One is that the pool of experienced jihadist operatives in Europe has grown exponentially. Between 2011 and 2017, ISIS attracted about 40,000 foreign volunteers from 110 countries. An estimated 6,000 came from Europe. An unknown number were killed in Iraq and Syria, and more than 1,000 are imprisoned in Kurdish-held areas of those countries. Many have returned home, and some have been arrested. But European punishments are lax by American standards: those convicted of terrorism-related offenses receive only five years on average, and many are released before serving their full prison terms. Authorities in France warn that by the end of 2019 French prisons will release 500 terrorists and prisoners known to have been radicalized in prison. In the United Kingdom, half of the nearly 200 terrorist inmates sent to prison since 2009 will be released by 2019. Among jihadists, recidivism is high.
Globally, the picture has changed but not necessarily improved. ISIS is down, but al Qaeda is up. Currently, terrorist enclaves in northern Syria and in North Africa contain about 2,000 ISIS fighters. An al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has five times that many armed loyalists in the region. Although HTS recruits followers online, it has otherwise kept its head down, choosing to consolidate its power in the Middle East rather than organizing attacks in Europe that might attract the full force of Western counterterrorism. Most of its fighters remain in Idlib, though some may begin to flee as the Syrian government attempts to retake the province. Idlib borders Turkey, which borders Europe.
Some see HTS as a local jihadist group with no international ambitions. It is more likely, however, that HTS is yet another example of al Qaeda’s use of tactical rebranding. In the past, al Qaeda has taken over other jihadist organizations using what the political scientist Daniel Byman has called a “mergers & acquisitions” strategy. It partners with local groups and then works to influence them from within, shifting “the orientation of jihad from the local to the global.” Al Qaeda has always had a strategy of targeting “the far enemy”—the West—rather than local rivals, and it should not be a surprise if the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, decides to target Europe in the near future.
At the moment, Europe is safer from terrorism than it has been in years, thanks in part to the counterterrorism efforts of European governments. But terrorism has its own cyclical fluctuations. The pattern is usually that terrorist networks use new tactics to catch unprepared governments by surprise. The governments then pass new antiterrorism legislation and reorganize their relevant agencies, bringing the threat under control. Terrorists then regroup, change tactics, and prepare to initiate a new campaign.
The current respite in violence is welcome. It is not, however, a reason for Europe’s leaders to lower their guard.